Human reproduction and embryology have certainly made a few headlines this week. This edition of BioNews reports some of the stories that have caused journalists to get hot under the collar: an Australian team has found a way to fertilise eggs without sperm; American scientists are creating embryos from donor gamete purely to harvest stem cells; another post-menopausal woman has given birth to a baby conceived using her brother's sperm; and the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has agreed that a new form of embryo screening might be licensed in the future.
Why these stories are creating such a fuss is easy to see. Journalists are worried that if sperm is not needed, then men will become 'superfluous'. Some think that creating and destroying embryos for stem cells is tantamount to 'cannibalism'. Older women having babies is bad for the child, especially when, as in this case, the mother is also a lesbian. Screening embryos will lead to designer babies, and so on and so on.
Perhaps what the sensationalists and worriers have missed are the actual benefits that all this science can give us. Perhaps also, in some cases, they are jumping the gun. For example, the Australian research has so far only been tested in mice - and not even as far as pregnancy. We do not know yet whether it will work in mice, let alone humans, so those who are predicting that we will have generations of fatherless babies, and claiming that this 'devalues' men perhaps need to stop and think. This is designed as a potential treatment to enable infertile men to have children of their own - no devaluing there - it is certainly not sure whether it will enable two women to have a child together.
Why lesbians having a child should be so bad is also not made clear, although one journalist commented that children without fathers may turn to a life of petty crime. But this woman has been in a stable lesbian relationship for 15 years, and recent research has shown that growing up in this environment does not harm children. The fact that the sperm used was her brother's might generate a gut 'yuk' reaction, but can actually be seen as a great gift - there was no incest here as a donor egg was used.
And creating embryos specifically to gain stem cells is also less problematic than has been made out: as one of the scientists pointed out, it may even be more ethically sound than to use leftover embryos, as the donors know exactly what is going to happen to their eggs and sperm, and have consented to that in advance. Screening embryos for chromosomal disorders is also not a bad thing. The reason they are being screened is to create more babies, not less. Since when was that a bad thing?